Sunday, 27 November 2011

Vernon Watkins' 'Foal': Nature and Spiritual Beauty in a Welsh Landscape

FOAL (Vernon Watkins)

Darkness is not dark, nor sunlight the light of the sun
But a double journey of insistent silver hooves.
Light wakes in the foal's blind eyes as lightning illuminates corn
With a rustle of fine-eared grass, where a starling shivers.

And whoever watches a foal sees two images,
Delicate, circling, born, the spirit with blind eyes leaping
And the left spirit, vanished, yet here, the vessel of ages
Clay-cold, blue, laid low by her great wide belly the hill.

See him break that circle, stooping to drink, to suck
His mother, vaulted with a beautiful hero's back
Arched under the singing mane,
Shaped to her shining, pricked into awareness
By the swinging dug, amazed by the movement of suns;
His blue fellow has run again down into grass,
And he slips from that mother to the boundless horizons of air,
Looking for that other, the foal no longer there.

But perhaps
In the darkness under the tufted thyme and downtrodden winds,
In the darkness under the violet's roots, in the darkness of the pitcher's music,
In the uttermost darkness of a vase
There is still the print of fingers, the shadow of waters.
And under the dry, curled parchment of the soil there is always a little foal

So the whole morning he runs here, fulfilling the track
Of so many suns; vanishing the mole's way, moving
Into mole's mysteries under the zodiac,
Racing, stopping in the circle. Startled he stands
Dazzled, where darkness is green, where the sunlight is black,
While his mother, grazing, is moving away
From the lagging star of those stars, the unrisen wonder
In the path of the dead, fallen from the sun in her hooves,
And eluding the dead hands, begging him to play.

© The Estate of Vernon Watkins. Used by kind permission of Gwen Watkins.

For this entry I'd like to specially thank Gwen Watkins for giving me permission to reproduce one of her late husband's poems, and also John Rhys Thomas for his assistance. The painting is by Stubbs, another horsey favourite.

I think that I encountered Vernon Watkins' 'Foal' at one of those particularly impressionable moments which came quite often between the ages of 10 and 20 in particular - or perhaps I should say 7 and 24... I think that my artistic interests since then have been mainly an extension of everything that came before. When I was 18 or 19 I was studying modern British poetry in one of my classes at university, and while this was not one of the poems we studied, it was in the Oxford anthology that we were using.

I have loved horses for a very, very long time, particularly since reading Marguerite Henry's King of the Wind when quite young. I was the quintessential horse-obsessed little girl, reading everything I could lay my hands on, writing bad poetry, and riding for several years until my studies and other aspects of life became more demanding. I am pretty sure that this poem came particularly to my notice during my browsing because it was about a foal. Vernon Watkins was a completely unfamiliar name to me. But I loved the poem so much that I ended up reading it to the class during a session where we all chose a poem to share. I've been reading Watkins on and off ever since.

Vernon Watkins is best known today for having been a close friend of Dylan Thomas, not for his own poetry. What is less well known is the fact that Thomas described Watkins as "the most profound and greatly accomplished Welshman writing poems in English." Despite their friendship, they seem to have been two utterly different people: Thomas was a pure sensualist in both life and poetry, while Watkins was a deeply religious man with a stable and happy family life, influenced by the Symbolists and his Christian faith. Watkins' poems are pure and almost naive by comparison with those of Dylan Thomas. Notably, Thomas was supposed to be the best man at Watkins' wedding but failed to show up. At the time of Watkins' death, he was a strong candidate for the next British Poet Laureate. Sadly, he was only 61 when he died, and perhaps if he had lived longer and become the Poet Laureate he would be better known to the current generation. However, it is good to know that a New Selected Poems has been published in recent years by Carcanet and is available on this link.

I love Wales, although I have mainly travelled in Snowdonia, and Watkins was from South Wales (the Gower Peninsula). Gwen Watkins said of this poem: "We lived on the Gower cliffs for most of our married life, and at that time the wild ponies ran about the cliffs all the year round, so that in the spring there were many foals. Vernon knew every inch of Gower, and all its flowers, birds and animals." Watkins obviously had a profound love and reverence for the Welsh landscape. There are passages in his poems which crash across the reader's sensibilities like a wave on a headland:

Late I return, O violent, colossal, reverberant, eavesdropping sea.
My country is here. I am foal and violet. Hawthorn breaks from my hands.

(taken from 'Taliesin in Gower')

In other poems, colours and animal images create a powerful tapestry-like impression:

The mound of dust is nearer, white of mute dust that dies
In the soundfall's great light, the music in the eyes,
Transfiguring whiteness into shadows gone,
Utterly secret. I know you, black swan.

(taken from 'Music of Colours: White Blossom')

In his poems the animals and flowers are more than nature; they symbolize spiritual truths. I remember reading about 'Foal' and its companion poem 'The Mare', that Watkins had an interest in Plato's theory of the ideal form, whereby everything in the material world is only an echo or copy of a purer, perfect form on a spiritual plane. This could partly account for the description in 'Foal' of the "left spirit" and the "blue fellow" of the very real little foal who runs through the poem. The whispering image of "the print of fingers, the shadow of waters" also makes me think of Genesis and the early moment of creation, as though God has left his signature: "there was darkness upon the surface of the watery deep" (Genesis 1:2).

Essentially, however, this is a poem that I still find deeply mysterious and beautiful, which I love no less because interpretation somewhat eludes me. In many respects there is no other animal poem which quite compares with it, for me. The movements of the foal - leaping, startling, sleeping - are marvellously observed. Almost fifteen years after first reading the poem, there are still lines in it which haunt me and which remain, enchantingly, just out of reach. Sometimes I think that the shadowy foal refers to a dead twin; sometimes it is the Platonic ideal; sometimes it seems like the beautiful dreams that can wash through both our sleep and our waking hours, and which poetry brings us a little bit closer to touching.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Shakespeare's "When In Disgrace": Or, Why I Don't Get Invited To That Many Parties

SONNET XXIX (William Shakespeare)

When in disgrace with Fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf Heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess'd,
Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least.
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Trying to remember a first introduction to Shakespeare is bound to be tricky. I think that there may have been a book of adaptations for children from the library, at some point, but I don't remember it setting me alight with enthusiasm. I have the faintest memory of my parents taking us to a showing of Laurence Olivier's version of Henry V when I was very young. Apparently I loved it, but I really don't remember.

Junior high school is where most of us were thrown in the deep end with Shakespeare, at least in Canada: A Midsummer Night's Dream, Julius Caesar or Romeo and Juliet (the former for me), and some sonnets. I fell in love with Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing, and with Kenneth Branagh, as did all the grade 9 girls. I then went on to study Hamlet at least three times, but that was later. Seeing it in the West End with Jude Law a couple of years ago, I realised that I still knew Hamlet nearly off by heart and was mouthing the words along with the actors.

But returning to junior high: in grade 8, I had Mr Bradley as an English teacher. Mr Bradley was loud. He liked to bellow. Across the hallway was another teacher who liked to screech, so it was an interesting duet, at times. I enjoyed Mr Bradley's class. In general, I think that I was very fortunate to have English teachers who may not have reached great heights of inspiration, but who encouraged my writing and created a stimulating environment for all of us.

At some point in the course of my semester with Mr Bradley - I think it was only one semester, not an entire year - we had to memorize a poem to recite to the class. I don't remember a great deal of the other students' choices. I am fairly sure, though, that someone chose Jenny Joseph's 'Warning': "When I am an old woman I shall wear purple..." Although I like the poem, at the time this really was not my cup of tea. I would probably have gravitated toward the Romantics, maybe a bit of Yeats, and Shakespeare. I chose Shakespeare's Sonnet XXIX.

I doubt that my delivery was anything spectacular, but I do specifically remember that Mr Bradley was very pleased by my choice. (I didn't try to be a teacher's pet, but apparently I was a natural.) He said of Sonnet XXIX, and I quote: "That's a poem that you will have with you for the rest of your life."

Well, Mr turns out that you were absolutely right. Twenty years have gone by, and I still know the poem off by heart, effortlessly. I have recited it in some really odd settings, just because. One of my party tricks is reciting it at lightning speed. Perhaps this is why I don't get invited to that many parties. But I'll always have Sonnet XXIX.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Louis MacNeice's 'Snow': A Poem About Being Alive

SNOW (Louis MacNeice)

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes -
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one's hands -
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

© The Estate of Louis MacNeice. Taken from Collected Poems, published by Faber and Faber. Used by permission.

Louis MacNeice famously described his ideal characteristics for a (male) poet as follows: "I would have a poet able-bodied, fond of talking, a reader of the newspapers, capable of pity and laughter, informed in economics, appreciative of women, involved in personal relationships, actively interested in politics, susceptible to physical impressions." I have to admit that these words, along with MacNeice's admirably strong jawline and brooding gaze (see the above picture), sent me off into a reverie about Manly Men who are also poets. The cover of his Collected Poems suggests that he also looked very very fine in a fedora hat. But I digress.
MacNeice certainly was a poet who had a grasp of both the seen and the unseen. Many writers and poets lean strongly in one direction or the other, and write either with a powerful physicality, or an intense vision of the intangible. It is surprisingly rare to really achieve both. MacNeice's poems are vividly sensual, as well as insightful and varied in their emotional landscape.
'Snow' is a poem about the nature of reality, about the way things are, and about the dialogue between the conscious and the subconscious. It is a poem with an intense duality, showing the physical world as marvelous and bizarre, while also invoking what lies beyond the physical world. It is a poem about poetry, because poetry in its fullest sense is also a dialogue between the conscious and the unconscious.
This poem reminds me of the work of James Joyce, another Irishman - particularly A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man and Ulysses. I preferred A Portrait of the Artist, finding it more accessible than Ulysses but still a remarkably effective portrayal of what it is like to be alive - the maze of thoughts and emotions, the waves of sensual impressions. With 'Snow', MacNeice is doing something similar. It is a poem about being alive. There are moments when the beauty and strangeness of what we see or hear catches at the heart and leaves a indelible impression that can last for a lifetime. This is the moment when we realise that "World is suddener than we fancy it."
As I read this poem, I can see the roses inside flaring brilliantly against the snow outside, perhaps caught in a sudden gleam from the firelight. I can taste the sweet-sour tangerine, feel the pips in my mouth, hear the small bursts and ripples from the fire. The physical intensity of this poem is second to none. It reminds me of the brief moments when I have moved out of the seashell interiors of the mind into a realm of pure sensation: at a very loud gig, drinking wine on an empty stomach and drowning in sound and light; watching sunrise over Uluru; riding a camel by moonlight into the Sahara and sensing the moment when the texture of the sand changed under its feet; running across a monumental Munich square at night in a thunderstorm. These moments don't come very often for me, but I never forget them: all part of "the drunkenness of things being various." 
And yet, there is much more to 'Snow' - this is where the dialogue between the conscious and the subconscious comes in. I have read interpretations of this poem which suggest that the snow and the roses are distinctively Irish symbols - after all, James Joyce described the fall of the snow at the end of 'The Dead'. This is all possible, but what really stands out to me is that MacNeice understands how separate and yet how united things which are apparently so very different can be. 
"There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses", he writes. "Between" is a very ambiguous word. A wall can stand between two people, but so can a bridge. A window can separate, but it also joins, because you can see through it. The snow and the roses have come together, but they will never touch. This is a paradox, and it is part of the mystery of poetry. Disparate elements come together and maintain their own separate identities, but also unite to create something entirely new and extraordinary, and images from the unconscious swim to the surface to join with a more tangible reality.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

"What Is Lost, What Remains": Lynda Hull's 'At Thirty'

AT THIRTY (Lynda Hull)

The above link will take you to Lynda Hull's 'At Thirty', as well as a biography and other poems, at, an excellent resource for poems and poets. I'd also like to include this link on the Poetry Foundation website to her 'Rivers Into Seas', one of my favourites - written for a friend who had just died, and the last poem Hull completed only weeks before her own untimely death.

I started reading Lynda Hull only recently, when a colleague brought in one of her poems to be considered for inclusion in an anthology we are working on. I was impressed and decided to seek out some more of her work, and I've been browsing her Collected Poems ever since. Hull's poetry is genuinely gritty, not always one of my preferences in poetry or literature generally, I admit. She creates deeply personal scenes of translucent cities, flowing water, streets where it is always night, and the beauty of cracked plaster and prematurely aged faces. Music is a frequent theme of her poems, and her style is distinctly musical.

'At Thirty' is unusual for being far shorter than most of Hull's poems, which tend to run riverine for pages. I chose it for its resonance in my own life, given that I'm now just a couple of years past "at thirty". Hull's short life was far different from my own, though. She was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1954, and ran away from home at 16, having just been awarded a scholarship to Princeton University. During the next ten years she married a Chinese immigrant and lived in various locations around North America. She struggled with drug addiction, a theme which also recurs in her poems. In the 1980s, she began studying and writing poetry seriously, and married the poet David Wojahn. Tragically, she died in a car accident in 1994, aged only 39.

None of this bears much resemblance to my life. "Automats & damp streets", perhaps, and "alien skies"; I do live in London, and before that, Dublin. But there is much more to this poem than the specific difficulties of one woman's life; even more than the beauty and hardness of New York.

Personally, I have found that at thirty (and beyond) I have had time to gain some perspective on my life so far - I've always found that it takes several years to look back and have any type of realistic perspective on a certain time period in life. "Whole years I knew only nights", Hull writes; regardless of the details, any young night owl will recognise something in this, at least for a few years here and there. Her images of unfocused longing ("the heart's/racketing flywheel stuttering I want, I want") are also familiar. The twenties are not much easier than the teens; harder in some ways, because you're almost equally confused, but have many more responsibilities, and haven't had enough time to really understand why others behave the way they do and why you react the way you do.

The poem concludes:

...behind me facades gleam with pigeons

folding iridescent wings. Their voices echo
in my voice naming what is lost, what remains.

By thirty, almost everyone has experienced loss - sometimes a lot of it. You finally realise that losing people is something that will happen over and over again: by death, by misunderstanding, by circumstances that one or both of you can't reconcile. In the twenties, the dangers may have more to do with inexperience and impulsiveness; in the thirties the risk seems to be of hardening into resignation or anger. At thirty you begin to have a clearer picture of what has already happened to you and the kind of person that you have allowed yourself to become with your set of circumstances. The question is, what will you do with that knowledge?

Thursday, 10 November 2011

We now interrupt your regularly scheduled programming to talk about Facebook

My objective for this blog is nothing less than world domination by great poetry. Well, perhaps a bit less, but it would be lovely if people were inspired to seek out even more poems by these poets and others, and to weave them into their own lives.

So, to that end...I have inevitably created a Facebook page to support this blog: The Stone and the Star Facebook Page

If you're a Facebook user, and would like to support the dissemination of poetry (and, er, this blog), please do "like" the page, recommend it to your friends, and so on and so forth.

It would be more appropriate if I were a Twitter user, but I thought I'd throw in this quotation from T S Eliot's 'Burnt Norton', which does seem very appropriate for this social-networking century (and my London life).

Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London,
Hampstead and Clerkenwell, Campden and Putney,
Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate. Not here
Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

'Macavity, the Mystery Cat': Sherlock Holmes, T S Eliot and...Cats


The above link will take you through to a very amusing video recording of former Children's Laureate Michael Rosen reciting 'Macavity'. From this page you can also access a text version. It is courtesy of the BBC, who included the poem as part of their 'Off By Heart' competition. If you have trouble accessing the BBC website, another link to the poem's text can be found here on the Guardian website.

T S Eliot, the author of 'Macavity' and so many other extraordinary poems, is a huge subject in himself and one that I'd like to return to another time. He is not an original choice for most revered poet, but I would probably have to give him the position in my literary life that I gave to W B Yeats ten or fifteen years ago. And not only was he the author of such groundbreaking, erudite and moving meditations on spiritual stagnation and growth, the nature of modern society and the passage of time as 'The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock', The Waste Land and Four Quartets - but he also wrote fun and hilarious poems about cats, collected as Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. The collection was later adapted into the musical Cats. Achieving that level of diversity is definitely living the dream, in poetic terms.

The Practical Cats poems were plainly written by a poet who knew and understood cats, as well as having a host of funny literary and historical references at his fingertips. In 'The Naming of Cats', he writes:

I tell you, a cat needs a name that's particular,
A name that's peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?

He then goes on to suggest names such as Coricopat and Bombalurina - as well, of course, as the cat's everyday name, and the "Effanineffable/Deep and inscrutable singular Name" that only it knows. A few poems feature dogs, usually Pekes meeting some terrible fate. The poem called 'Of the Awefull Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles Together With Some Account of the Participation of the Pugs and the Poms, and the Intervention of the Great Rumpuscat" makes me laugh out loud. My mother tells me that when she and my father lived in England in the early 1970s, they had a landlady who had several cats ranging from the adorable to the psychotic. When my parents moved out of that house, they gave the landlady a parting gift of the Practical Cats poems. She was later overheard in her sitting room reading them aloud and with great delight to a friend.

'Macavity, the Mystery Cat' is a special poem for me because it reflects Eliot's admiration for Sherlock Holmes. He was enough of a fan that his play Murder in the Cathedral adapted a passage from the Sherlock Holmes story 'The Musgrave Ritual' to the extent that it was nearly plagiarism. Macavity, "the Napoleon of Crime", is also Professor Moriarty, Holmes's arch-enemy. There are references to at least two or three specific Sherlock Holmes stories in the poem, and the image of a cat mastermind of evil "doing complicated long division sums" while his henchmen do his awful bidding is quite wonderful. Cats are very good at being masterminds of evil, except that they spend too much time napping. I have friends who have a cat that would look perfect in a tiny Darth Vader outfit (complete with tiny ears and an extension for the tail), but that's another story.

As for Sherlock Holmes, he and Dr Watson and the host of characters brought to life by Arthur Conan Doyle in an unforgettable London are important to me for so many reasons. Holmes entered my life when I was young, reading the stories ('The Speckled Band' scared me to pieces) and watching the incomparable Jeremy Brett on TV. When I was a teenager and even more obsessed, I dreamed of visiting London and seeing the places in the stories. I did that in my late teens, and swore I'd move to London some day. Well, here I am.

It really is no exaggeration to say that if you trace the idea back to its source, Holmes is probably at least 50% of the reason why I ended up in London. I still love him for the sarcastic, cold, passionate character that he is, and Watson for his loyalty and bravery, but even if I'd lost all interest in the stories for themselves, I would love them forever just because they brought me to this city.